Imagine you live in a world where female is the default gender. Where women own 95% of big business, media companies, and government positions. You study herstory at school, written by women, with female central figures. Herstory has very few male achievements. When you read bedtime stories to your children about non-gender specific animals you say ‘she’ automatically. Female sport is said to be the only sport worth watching, and therefore gets nearly all the media coverage. You agree that it’s ‘just more exciting’. Your role as a man is encouraged to be passive, nurturing, secondary to the female role. You must be sexy to please women, but not so sexy that your woman feels like she can’t keep you all for herself. It’s a difficult balancing act but you try your best. You start to view yourself through the ‘female gaze’ and agonise over your thighs and the size of your pecs. You starve yourself skinny and use painful methods to keep all the hair off your body, because you know that’s what women like. You apologise all the time. You apologise for apologising all the time.
When you got married it was assumed you would take your wife’s name. You happily surrendered that piece of your identity, because you know it’s the matriarchal line that matters. Everyone else in your family has done the same, after all. Every romantic movie you watch reminds you that you are obsessed with getting married and that it benefits you way more than your wife, who must continue her career to support you, while you get to stay home and raise the children and scrub the toilet.
You love your children, but you feel a nagging dissatisfaction. Sometimes you feel like you are merely an extension of your family. That you aren’t seen. So, you start reading and researching meninism. You find other men who feel the same way. You join groups. You organise protests about things that affect you like the wage gap and rape culture. You start writing articles about these things and about your loss of identity, your sense that the balance is off somehow. Many men react to these articles positively, some men don’t. And many, many women don’t. But nevertheless, you persist.
You learn about gendered violence and rape. You become enraged that it continues at the rate that it does, and that perpetrators are seldom held to account. You are shocked that victims are often blamed, and you wonder how the world you live in could twist reality to such an extent. When you question this, you get abused online and in your home, but nevertheless, you persist.
Because you know that slowly things are improving. The group you have joined once fought and died for male suffrage rights, and you feel connected to something bigger than yourself, yet at the same time, more yourself than ever before. You no longer starve yourself, or spread hot wax on your pubic hair and rip it out every month. Your wife calls you disgusting but you no longer care. You wonder why you put yourself through that pain for so long. It causes a rift in your marriage and you realise that she never let you be yourself. You realise many things about your relationship. You divorce her, but she won’t accept it and her stalking and violence makes you so scared you take out an intervention order. It does not stop her. No one recognises your fear because you never said anything about it before and she never hit you. So, you stop mentioning it.
Then, as a small act of acknowledgment at your gender’s historical place as the ‘other,’ your council decides to change some of the street crossing signs from a female figure to a male one. You have always said to your children, ‘Wait for the green woman Billy,’ or ‘Stop Sarah, it’s the red woman,’ without even thinking about the pronoun you were using or how it was imprinting in their developing minds. You know this is a small gesture, but you also know from previous battles won that small changes add up to big ones. You feel momentarily happy. You feel seen. You celebrate.
And the world goes ape-shit.
It shouts at you. HOW RIDICULOUS! YOUR’E LUCKY IF THIS IS ALL YOU HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT! SOME MEN IN OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE REAL PROBLEMS! YOU ARE DEMEANING REAL SUFFERING! SHUT UP! And the shouting doesn’t stop.
And you think, Yeah, maybe I was being a bit whiney. After all, how can unconscious bias be a thing when everyone is saying it doesn’t affect them? You feel confused and sad. You are told not to feel confused and sad, but to feel lucky. You try to feel lucky. You think, I should care more about men in other countries who really have it tough. I’m lucky to live in Australia where I can walk along freely down the street (as long as it’s daylight and I walk fast and don’t make eye contact and if it is night time I hold my keys between my fist and if I do get raped it’s my fault for walking alone at night and my rapist will probably not get sentenced anyway). I’m lucky to live in a country where I have all the same legal rights as women (except that I live in constant fear that my ex will make me a statistic and the courts and police are doing nothing to protect me, but if she does kill me no doubt she’ll be described in the paper as a really top chick who cared about her family).
You feel ashamed for ever caring at all about street crossings. You think, I just need to keep reminding myself how lucky I am. And you remind yourself again so that you won’t forget. I’m really lucky, you think, so I should just shut up.
Alexandra O’Sullivan writes articles for The Radical Notion, along with writing fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Tincture and Meanjin. She recently received a Highly Commended in the inaugural Horne Prize for creative nonfiction.